Life in Perspective

The following is an excerpt from The Jakarta Post. It is not necessarily an uncommon story here in Indonesia:

Poverty has led a family to make a home amid silent neighbors — tombstones — just one kilometer west of the country’s international airport.

Muhammad Akim Hakim and his wife Erna Octaviana Pasaribu are raising their young children in Tanah Pasir Cemetery, an abandoned Chinese cemetery, near Rawa Kucing area in predominantly poor Neglasari district, as they have no better options.

Neglasari and Benda, both situated not far from the airport, are the poorest districts in Tangerang.

Akim, 43, and Erna, 22, live in a humble structure consisting of four concrete poles, a concrete roof and one-meter high walls around a 4×3 meter grave. Corrugated iron sheets fill in the missing spaces. Hakim just needed a little work to make the grave a home for his family.

The couple have never dared dream of living in a house with clean, running water or adequate sanitation with a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen to cook daily meals in.

Their home has none of the above.

For bathing and washing clothes, the family can ask water from neighbors but they have to crouch behind a bush to defecate and use candles for lighting at night.

“Before moving to this cemetery, we used to live in a Muslim cemetery in Kampung Melayu, Paku Haji district. We could not stand living there because there were too many ghosts roaming around and it disturbed our children both during the day and at night,” Akim told The Jakarta Post recently.

To feed his family, Akim, who has Chinese ancestry on his grandfather’s side of the family and once aspired to be a marine, has to pedal his bicycle some four hours every day to look for sapu-sapu fish with his handmade net.

Akim usually leaves at 8 a.m. on his bicycle for Ciliwung River or Rawa Lele in Kalideres in West Jakarta.

He returns home at 11 p.m.

The following day, he sells the fish at Rp 12,000 per kilogram to meat ball vendors who regularly visit his his graveyard home.

Sapu-sapu fish in Cisadane River here are too smart to be netted. It’s much easier to find the fish in the Ciliwung River and I can collect between three and four kilograms a day,” said Akim.

From his marriage with Erna, who is from Bekasi, West Java, Akim has three children, Dian Octaviani, 6, Asih, 4, and Novi Angel Natalia, 14 months.

Their second child has been taken in by a neighbor because the couple could not afford to raise her.

“We should have sent our eldest daughter to school this year but we don’t have the money. Maybe next year,” he said.

After living in the Chinese cemetery for three years, Akim is entrusted to take care of 20 graves by the families of the dead and receives Rp 50,000 in April every year from each of the families when Buddhists hold Teng Meng prayers.

Akim said that his family had experienced many encounters with ghosts and snakes in the cemetery.

“Once my eldest daughter was taken away at midnight by orang halus (a spirit). I found her sleeping on the roof of another Chinese grave some 300 meters from the house the following morning,” he said.

Poisonous snakes like ular tanah, ular belang and ular bombok frequently sneak into the house and sleep alongside his children as there are many holes in the structure.

He said that the sound of aircraft overhead punctuates the otherwise tranquil life of his family.

“This place used to be considered very spooky by local residents and no one would dare pass by until I lived here,” he said.

Although raised in poverty, unlike her parents who have no ambitions of a better life, Akim’s daughter, Dian, has hopes for the future.

“I want to become a doctor someday. I want earn a lot of money and buy a house for my mother and father,” Dian said.

A child of her age would normally be in first grade at elementary school. But Dian does not go to school.

Her parents said they could not afford to send her to school even if the tuition was free. Dian, however, can read and write.

“I teach her to read and write at home. We like living here because we are used to it,” Erna said.

Not far from their simple abode, the busy international airport seems part of a different world.